If you want to know where the best marijuana in the world is grown, just ask Oliver Stone. The Oscar-winning film director, a long-time user and an outspoken proponent of the drug, has no doubt.
“The best weed in the world is here in California,” he tells me firmly when we talk in a Los Angeles hotel. “I’ve been doing it for 40 years as you know, and there’s better stuff here than in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Jamaica, South Sudan – and I’ve been to all those places. The Facebook generation, if that’s what you call them, are very smart kids and they make good stuff.”
We are talking drugs because it is the theme of his latest movie, Savages, a ferocious thriller based on Don Winslow’s best-selling crime novel about two Southern California youngsters who run a lucrative business raising some of the best marijuana ever developed, until a Mexican drug cartel moves in.
It stars the British actor Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch as the drug growers, with Blake Lively as the girlfriend they share. Salma Hayek is the ruthless head of the cartel with John Travolta as a sleazy Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent.
Laced with the politics and trade of marijuana, the subject was a natural for 65-year-old Stone, and features the themes of layered power struggles, complex relationships and damaged people that recur in many of his movies.
“The book came to me out of the blue and it read like a fast-paced, exciting, different thriller about the drug war with a new angle,” he said. “To me it was a sun-splashed wild ride, with a lot of twists and turns – I wanted to make it in a way that it would be fun to watch, and unpredictable, with a lot of tension. That’s the best kind of movie.”
Stone also produced the movie and co-wrote the screenplay with Winslow, making several major changes, including the ending.
But first he did his research, enlisting the help of retired drug enforcement agents, drug growers and even what he calls “some very interesting high-level people with a lot of money in Mexico”. Aaron Johnson, who was the first actor Stone cast, received a crash course in the culture and politics of the marijuana industry from real ex-cartel members.
“It was in my interest that they meet real people involved in the industry and feel them out, because actors relate to people better than they do to words on a page,” says Stone.
Although one of his main sources was an ex-DEA agent named Eddie Follis, Oliver Stone is disparaging of America’s so-called “war on drugs”. “It’s a total disaster,” he says. “President Nixon called it the war on drugs in 1969 and it has completely backfired. There are more people using drugs in high school today than ever before, so we haven’t solved the problem through prohibition.
“There’s a huge amount of money at stake and there’s no way the drug war can end because too many people are benefiting. It will never, never be won. We have customs agents, a police force, the DEA and prisons, so there’s a huge industry – several billion dollars and probably more – involved in drugs. It’s swallowing Mexico and it’s swallowing us.”
He knows what he’s talking about. Ten days after being honourably discharged from the army in November 1968, having earned two purple hearts and a bronze star for valour in Vietnam, Stone was jailed in San Diego for attempting to smuggle two ounces of marijuana across the border from Mexico. The case was later dismissed but Stone turned from being a flag-waving conservative into an anti-establishment rebel. He was arrested again in California in 1999 for drunken driving and possession of hashish, was sentenced to three years’ probation and ordered into rehab.
After leaving the army he attended film school at New York University, where Martin Scorsese was one of his teachers. He won an Oscar in 1978 for his first studio screenplay, Midnight Express, the true story of drug smuggler Billy Hayes’s hellish experience inside a Turkish prison, and since then has built a reputation as one of the most politically charged directors of his generation.
Films such as Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, JFK, Natural Born Killers, Nixon and W are some of the most seminal and controversial movies of his generation, and his recent documentary South of the Border needled the American Right with its glowing portrayal of Leftist leaders in South America and Cuba.
On the way he won two more Oscars, for directing Platoon in 1987 and Born on the Fourth of July in 1990.
Intense and restlessly energetic, he has always said exactly what he thinks and has earned the reputation of being a “difficult” director to work for. Benicio Del Toro, who plays the brutal cartel enforcer Lado, says of Stone: “He will poke at you; he will make you mad and then he’ll poke at you again. Your blood will really be pumping and then he will smile at you.”
He has been married for 15 years to his third wife, the Korean Sun-jung Jung, and he has a daughter, Tara, 17, and two sons, Michael, 21 and Sean, 27. Sean recently proved he has his father’s penchant for political controversy when he announced he had become a Shia Muslim and had chosen to be known by the first name Ali.
“He didn’t consult me about the decision,” says Stone senior. “He did it and I back him because he believes in it. I wish him well but if he wants to do what he’s going to do he has to live with the consequences of it.” Just as his father has done.
'Savages’ is released today.
By John Hiscock, Friday 21st September 2012
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